The issues that colleagues have been raising across the Chamber today are very familiar to my inbox. My constituents have been affected by exactly the same issues, and I want to tell a couple of stories to illustrate them.
Mary told me that she was really lucky to be able to buy and move into her flat in 2013. Since then, her joy has been marred by the failings of the freeholder year after year. Service charges have increased by 33% in five years, with no change in the frankly dire service that is provided. Mary and other residents pay £4,500 a year but must deal with broken lifts that are not fixed for months at a time. Disabled residents have had to move out of the block. The doors to common areas have been left broken, allowing access to anyone and leaving residents vulnerable to antisocial behaviour in common areas and in stairwells. Rough sleepers understandably see this as an opportunity for shelter. We all know just how much rough sleeping has escalated over the past nine years due to austerity, but people sleeping in stairwells is an obvious fire risk, with sleeping people and belongings blocking the stairs.
Mary and her neighbours have no effective way of communicating with the management. She has not been allowed to ask about items on bills that double or triple in cost for no apparent reason. She has not been allowed to hold service providers to account—companies to which the residents pay thousands of pounds a year simply do not do their job. There is a pattern. Mary sees maintenance problems deliberately being left unfixed, because that means that residents pay a second and third time for call-out fees. As leaseholders, she and her neighbours have little power to stop people ripping them off. Three others from Mary’s block have written to me with exactly the same concerns, and one has been dealing with them for 15 years.
Another local leasehold block has cracked and faulty pipework for water and heating. Some flats completely lose water pressure, leaving residents unable to wash, clean or even fill a kettle. Others are roasting in hot weather because the heating is constantly left on in the walls—an appalling waste of energy and residents’ money, and a health risk. The average temperature in one corridor is 30°, and residents can ventilate it only by keeping a fire door open. We all know how dangerous that is. The block goes uncleaned for weeks at a time. Flawed waste disposal means that that rubbish piles up, and the block has not been decorated in years. It is dire.
The management company has a clear responsibility to provide the service, but it ain’t happening. Residents complained more than a year ago, but nothing was done and now we are back in summer when the heating and ventilation problems will again be at their worst. They come to me, but what powers do I have to make the management company behave? I do not have any, because the law is not there. The management company has a clear responsibility to provide these services. These are homes, and flawed laws should not prevent people from working together to keep their blocks clean and safe. Their only option is to write begging letters to a distant hands-off freeholder to ask them to intervene.
Rahima tells me that she feels like a prisoner in her own home because of an extortionate and, frankly, disgusting clause in her leasehold contract that doubles the ground rent. It started at £200 a year, and she was deceived into believing that it would stay that way, but actually it will keep doubling and doubling, eventually reaching £6,400 a year—completely and utterly unaffordable. It could make it impossible for her to remortgage or sell. I could go on and on because, frankly, I have got the case load. All the constituents who have contacted me have seen paltry commitments from this Government, but they are not enough to free residents from the injustice of the leasehold system.
However, I am really proud of Labour’s new proposals. When we get into government, Rahima will not be facing that doubling of ground rent, because we will cap existing ground rents at never more than £250 a year. Mary and her neighbours and many others will gain power over the management of their blocks—no more extortionate opaque service charges, but a clear right to challenge poor services, and a right to come together to buy out the freeholder and establish commonhold ownerships. My constituents need radical solutions, and if this Government will not provide them, our Labour Government will.